Monday, 27 February 2017

A Duchess of Burgundy

John I of Portugal
The Portuguese-English Alliance

Isabella of Portugal was the only daughter of King John I of Portugal and his wife Philippa of Lancaster[i]. King John gained his throne following the death, in 1383, of his brother Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s only surviving child, the ten year old Beatrice, was married to King John of Castile. The Portuguese had no desire to be swallowed up by the Castilians, whose king was hungry to expand his domains. An interregnum followed the king’s death in October 1383 as the two John’s fought it out.

On 6th April 1685 the Portuguese Cortes pronounced John, Master of the Order of Aviz[ii], king of Portugal. The Battle of Aljubarrota, fought on 14th August 1385, between the Castilians and the Portuguese, resulted in a resounding victory for the Portuguese commanded by John and his general Nuno Alvarez Piera. More than 5,000 Castilian soldiers were killed after the battle. In October the Battle of Valverde merely served to confirm Portuguese independence from Spain.

John of Gaunt
The following year the newly crowned King John came to the aid of his father-in-law John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, when he attempted to take the throne of Castile by right of marriage[iii]. The Duchess of Lancaster and her daughter followed the army who were unimpressed. According to Froissart’s Chronicles the men grumbled;

‘What was the Duke of Lancaster thinking of….when he planned a big campaign yet brought his wife and daughter with him? It has held us back all to no purpose….As for the campaign and the capture of towns, cities and castles, the ladies are not much help there.’[iv]

Eventually John of Gaunt returned home having lost a large part of his army to sickness.

The Royal Family

Born in Évora, on 17th January 1397, Isabella was one of six children and the only girl. Her oldest brother Edward was born in 1391, Peter[v] in 1392, Henry[vi] in March 1394, after Isabella came John[vii] born in January 1400[viii]. The last child, of what was to become known as the Illustrious Generation, was Ferdinand born in September 1402. The children had an older half-brother Don Alfonso[ix], the result of King John’s liaison with his mistress Inês Peres.
Don Alfonso

Although John is viewed by historians as not particularly bright he was an effective leader and a warrior who had a dream of recreating the Arthurian legend in Portugal. His sons were taught to venerate him as the saviour of Portuguese independence. John used the younger and lower ranking nobility to counter-balance the power of the older nobles and clergy, something that was viewed by the old aristocracy with disdain;

‘Another and new world then arose and a new generation of men; for the sons of people of such low degree that it would not be fitting to name them were, at that time, made knights for their good services to the king, and for their courage.’[x]

John also kept control of the machinery of government solely in his hands.

Philippa was a contrast to her husband imbued with the spirit of pragmatism. She was in control of the children’s education and instilled in them a strong religious faith and the sense of royal duty. Henry was dedicated to biblical and theological studies[xi] with an interest in liturgical matters, an interest inherited from his mother.

Philippa also involved herself in the affairs of the home she left behind her; intervening with her brother Henry IV, when he usurped the throne from their cousin Richard II, to help Richard’s followers. She also arranged the marriage of the Earl of Arundel[xii] to marry John’s illegitimate daughter Beatriz[xiii].

An Unusual Childhood

Philippa of Lancaster
Isabella was allowed to play with her older brothers, despite the formalities of the queen’s nursery. Isabella also helped to look after her younger brothers John and Ferdinand when they were small. John was to become a private and retiring person as an adult, while Ferdinand adored his adventurous brother Henry and dreamed of following in his footsteps.

The children were tutored to read in several languages including Latin, French, English and Italian, and were also taught science and mathematics. The royal children’s education, probably managed by Philippa, was of high quality as evidenced by their literary writings in adult life. Philippa imbued her children with admiration for the Plantagenet ancestry. In the spirit of her parents’ renaissance court Isabella was an avid reader and the siblings all enjoyed horse riding and hunting.

Edward was more suited to be a scholar than a king while his brother Charles had a temperament better suited for ruling; his advice to his brother on delaying decision making was very sensible;

‘Neither grant nor decide them [unclarified issues] at once; and those that certainly do not appear bad and unreasoned , do not deny them, but put them off so as later, with more repose and less fatigue, to determine them as you ought.’[xiv]

Isabella was sometimes allowed to join her brothers when they were tutored by their father in statecraft. Alongside them Isabella was schooled in diplomatic negotiations and the vagaries of politics, something that was to be of use to her later in life.

Real Politique

Walls of Ceuta
On 19th June 1415 the eighteen year old Isabella was grief stricken when her mother Philippa died at the age of fifty three. Philippa caught the plague and died at Sacavém after bidding her children farewell. Her three older boys, about to be knighted, were presented with jewelled swords by the queen. John, whose marriage to Philippa had been based on the alliance with England, had grown quite fond of his wife and was;

‘So grieved by [her] mortal illness… that he could neither eat nor sleep.’[xv]

Mother and daughter had a close and affectionate relationship and after Philippa’s death Isabella withdrew from the world for a while. She spent her time with her ladies-in-waiting, keeping herself amused with needlework, singing and indulging her passion for reading.

Six days after their mother’s death the princes joined their father who led a fleet to north Africa in an attack on the port of Ceuta[xvi]. Philippa had coordinated the expedition. The battle of Ceuta in August resulted in the Portuguese taking the town, their first foothold in what was to become their empire in Africa. Edward was placed in charge of the town which was to become a drain on the Portuguese treasury[xvii].

Battle of Agincourt
Nine days before King John and his sons' attack on Ceuta, a momentous event was happening in the English Channel as Henry V led an army across to France to press his somewhat nebulous claims to the French throne. It did not take long for him to cut a swathe through France and by October had sealed his bid with victory at the battle of Agincourt[xviii].

This victory was to overturn the status quo; the Hundred Years War had been stagnating for some time, but Henry’s audacious feat was the start of the English domination of the last stages of the war.

Following the victory in France and with dreams of further military glories yet to come Henry V, hoping to create an anti-French alliance, looked to Portugal for a wife. Isabella received an offer of marriage from her maternal cousin of England. The Portuguese and English had been allies in trade for a long time and Henry’s grandfather had helped King John gain his kingdom. John’s marriage to Philippa had helped strengthen the ties between the two countries, but the negotiations failed.


The Fifteenth Century – Margaret Aston, WW Norton and Company 1979

The Hundred Years War – Alfred Burne, Folio Society 2005

Chronicles – Froissart, Penguin Books 1968

The Reign of Henry VI – RA Griffiths, Sutton Publishing Ltd 1998

Agincourt – Christopher Hibbert, Pan Books 1964

The Fifteenth Century – EF Jacob, Oxford University Press 1997

Prince Henry – Peter Russell, Yale University Press 2000

Isabel of Burgundy – Aline S Taylor, Madison Books 2001


[i] Eldest child of John of Gaunt and cousin of King Richard II of England
[ii] A chivalric order
[iv] Chronicles - Froissart
[v] Duke of Coimbra
[vi] One of Portugal’s most famous sons, Duke of Viseu, he became known as Henry the Navigator and is regarded as the main force behind the Age of Discoveries
[vii] Later Constable of Portugal
[viii] Two children, possibly girls, died at birth in the years between Isabella’s birth and the birth of Prince John
[x] Prince Henry - Russell
[xi] In later life he was to found a chair of theology at Lisbon University
[xii] One of her brother’s principal supporters
[xiii] Born in 1386, Beatriz was the youngest child of John’s relationship with Inês Perez
[xiv] Isabel of Burgundy - Taylor
[xvi] The town was part of the Kingdom of Fez captured from the Hafsids with the assistance of the King of Aragon
[xvii] It was later decided that the port of Tangiers was essential for their expansionist plans but the city was not taken until 1471. Tangiers was handed over to England in 1662 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II

1 comment:

  1. I believe the name Nuno has a wiggly thing on the second n, making it Nunyo.
    It sounds as though she had a good childhood, which I hope made up for being royal.